My morning begins with a multitude of stars and a cold, white crescent moon.
I drive into the Park and stop in Mammoth below Kite Hill to have a moment with Allison. I tell her how soothed I feel by being here, and how my New York anxiety seems to have been lulled away. I hear elk music from all directions, some near, some far, but hardly any other sound. After a few quiet moments I bid my friend adieu and head east.
Some elk are crossing the road so I stop. One yearling calf has a bad limp. In my headlights I see its knee looks swollen. Poor thing. I hope he’ll be able to heal before winter comes.
As I drive down to the high bridge I breathe in the wonderful sage smell. Ahhhh. Yellowstone under moonlight and the smell of sage! I see a few mule deer in the timber to the left just before I reach Undine Falls and as I reach Blacktail Ponds the road disappears into a cloudbank. The fog looks like a mountain looming up ahead and it‘s very spooky! The cloud lifts a bit at Hellroaring, just in time for me to see a few more mule deer.
The rest of the drive is uneventful until I cross the Yellowstone River bridge and wind up the curve past Wrecker Pullout. Just then something darts across the road from right to left - a fox! I pull over and roll down my window to take a photo, even though it is still way too dark. The fox has stopped just off the road and is looking back across it intently, not at me, but at something in the picnic area. Just as the fox is about to cross the road back to my side, another car comes up the hill and the fox darts away. That car pulls into the picnic area and together we watch this pretty animal.
The fox comes close to the road again, still looking at a spot in the Picnic area. Then he turns his attention to something nearer at hand. His head tilts, big ears listening intently. He cocks his head the other way, gathers himself and…boink! I am so amazed at his nose dive and the poised way he holds his bushy tail that I don’t notice if he caught anything or not. He then dashes across the road between our two cars and I lose him among the picnic tables and trees.
The people in the other car look back at me and we smile at each other, enjoying our luck.
I drive on and see bison grazing below Junction Butte where ponds once used to be. I stop just west of Slough, where I saw my gray wolf head last night. I don‘t know the people here and try my best to find the wolves myself, but I do not. I do see bison and elk, and a raven in a tree. I watch the raven, hoping it will tell me where the wolves are or where a carcass might be. Then Rick drives up. He nods at me and says to the group that there is a gray wolf visible in Lamar. I admit it is pretty comical the way we all quickly pack up and head that way. I giggle thinking maybe Rick just wanted that spot to himself, LOL. I see more elk, bison and pronghorn on the way and one collared coyote, howling up a storm at Fisherman’s Pullout.
On the road ahead I recognize Anne’s car and watch her pull in to the Institute, so I follow her. I get Layla set up just in time to see a lone gray wolf trotting up the eastern end of Jasper Bench. It is a nice clear sighting but the wolf is not visible for very long. I learn that this is “Sharp Left”, a Slough Creek wolf. But my notes are confusing and I can’t tell you if this was a male or a female.
While we watch the gray we hear coyotes howling. It sounds great in the early morning air. The sun has come out and the day turns fine. Over the radio I hear Rick say someone at the Footbridge has a grizzly bear in view. Our gray wolf has now entered the trees and I decide to take a chance that the big bear may still be visible by the time I get to the eastern side of the valley.
I DO get here in time, although I am careful not to speed. I learned my lesson last trip! I pull into the Footbridge and see the big bruin right away, ambling along the riverbank east of the pullout. He is taking his sweet time, walking through beautiful blonde grass. He is dark brown with a silver “jacket”. I watch him unobstructed for a full 5 minutes until he disappears around the curve. Most people pack up and head to Soda Butte Cone to watch him from there but I decide to stay here and enjoy the morning in relative solitude.
I find a kestrel, hovering above the river, like the very first one I saw years ago from this very spot. Then I see some sort of raptor land in a tree near the river. Six magpies land in the same tree with it. I’m not sure what it is but it has a pale/speckled blonde breast and brown mottled wings. Any guesses?
Then I see a coyote in the flats, below the old river bank, standing stock still. At first I think he is a wolf because his coloring is dark but then I see his muzzle and very pointed ears and realize he is dark because he is standing in the shadow of the bank! Nearby I see more birds and I begin to wonder if there is some old kill out there. The coyote seems tentative about approaching the area and remains still.
I step back from the scope and look at this beautiful area. I am so happy to be here. The sun clears the mountains and I can feel the temperature rise.
After a while I head back west and see bison crossing the road at Dorothy’s. They stop on the asphalt, bringing the sparse traffic to a standstill. The bison mill about the pullout, scratching the snow poles and bending them severely, rubbing against the log railing, encircling a lone parked car. The car belongs to Jan & Bill who are up on Cardiac Hill, but their poor dog is inside it, with the windows open a crack. He is very polite and doesn’t bark one bit, despite the huge bison all around him.
Once the bison clear the road I head west. I am meeting the Loons at Albright for a hike Frank calls “The Hidden Gardner River” along its upper drainage. I stop for a pronghorn that wants to cross the road in Little America. He stops, too, as if waiting for me. Then a second pronghorn appears. Oh, maybe he’s waiting for that guy? Once the second animal crosses the road, the first one does, too. I drive on.
I stop again for a bull bison who commandeers the road near the Yellowstone River picnic area. Hmmm, bison sure seem to enjoy doing this! I wait in my lane as does an approaching car. Finally the big guy moves on, freeing us to go about our business.
As I drive through Hellroaring, I am again delighted at the colors I see. I note the two bright orange aspen and another spectacular series of yellow ones set off by their very white trunks and backed by dark green firs. The sky becomes overcast and it gets a little chilly.
I stop to watch a herd of bison in the slough opposite Wraith Falls. There are lots of calves in this group and I like watching them. They have darkened from red to brown, and their humps have grown more pronounced. They have become perfect mini-versions of the adults.
At Albright I see Dan M right away and we watching the resident bull elk tend and harass his harem on the parade grounds. Most of the cows are resting, chewing their cud, while the old warrior roams here and there, mildly agitated. He nuzzles a cow and she responds by standing up.
This bull and all the cows are near enough for close-ups, but still some camera-wielders insist on straying into the field for an even closer shot. This bull becomes more animated and several Rangers have their hands full keeping these Darwin-Award candidates separated from their doom. The vast majority of people stay in or close to their cars. I think, like us, they enjoy watching the tourons as much as the elk. In fact, they might even be laying bets.
Frank joins us and says this may be the infamous car-trashing bull. Apparently this animal has a habit of mistaking his own reflection in a car’s windshield for a rival bull and does what comes naturally. Over the last several days he‘s damaged a number of cars with his formidable rack and I am relieved to know that we won’t be leaving our cars here!
We park just east of the high bridge. I join Dan M, Bison and JJ and Frank and set off up the hill. At first our conversation is about the mysterious tragedy that happened only a few weeks ago; a father and son found dead 200 feet below the bridge. There is speculation of murder/suicide but when I learn that their camera was found nearby it seems to me more likely a tragic accident. That perhaps in pursuit of a photo, the boy leaned out too far, lost his grip and the father lost his in an attempt to save the boy. One non-English speaking tourist saw something which he/she tried to explain to a Ranger at Albright but then that tourist left. The Park Service did not retain sufficient information to find him/her again. I feel very bad for the poor woman who lost both husband and son on an otherwise beautiful day in Yellowstone. This bridge gave me the spooks the very first day I saw it, and this only adds to it.
Look for this story to be added someday to Park historian Lee Whittlesey’s book “Death In Yellowstone”.
But back to the hike. The day has gotten warmer and sunnier and it looks like we will be spared rain. The view of the upper Gardiner is terrific. We can see Mt. Everts behind us, Sepulcher to the west and Bunsen Peak to the south. A couple of Clark’s Nutcrackers flit in the trees above us and we see what we think is an osprey soar by.
The hill is steep, though, and I slow everyone down, as I huff and puff my way. Frank attempts to spare us some elevation by choosing a path through pine forests but eventually there is nothing for it but to hike up and over this hill. Eventually we do top out and face a delightfully strong breeze. The sun is out full and the view is spectacular. Far below us the Gardiner River comes roaring down a steep-sided, forested gorge. I finally put it together that this is the same stream that placidly flows past Sheepeater Cliffs. I have a fleeting wish to hike all the way there.
I follow the winding stream until it curves out of view. The water is bright blue and lined on both banks with subtle but gorgeous fall color. But what I like most is how remote it suddenly feels. I know how close the road is, yet the distant rushing water drowns out the sound of traffic rumbling across the bridge. Everything feels wonderfully wild and suggests the existence of even more remote country, ripe for exploring.
Although the top of the hill is bald with scattered rocks and sparse grass, there are tall pines and thick Douglas firs all around the edges. The river below runs fast and frothy past many twists and turns and we see small patches of green grass on both sides. Frank explains what he hopes to find down here and we discuss various objectives. I have none, other than to enjoy my time in this stunning wild country with like-minded friends.
Someone notices a mountain bluebird and I am again reminded of Doug’s book. He has taken some astonishing photos of those beautiful birds. We start down the hill and I make a point of noticing certain landmarks in case I need to find my way back out. I get to know JJ a little as we hike and find her delightful. The weather has become perfect for hiking; cool and sunny with a breeze. We plunge into forest and notice several small trees that have been trashed by bull elk. We see a few chipmunks scurry in the underbrush and JJ makes me chuckle when she says her nephew calls those animals “chick-monks“.
When we finally make it down to the river‘s edge we find thick-trunked trees and grass still very green and high. As much as we can, we follow elk or bison trails but they tend to peter out. We see evidence all around us that this area is disrupted every year by flooding. There is virtually no sediment build-up. Instead we find a haphazard litter of dead branches and sharp rocks. Between them lurk ankle-twisting holes and it takes me no time at all to fall into one. I bang and cut my knee but do no further harm than that. We find fascinating things to see all along the way, like prints and bones of elk and bison, shed antlers and even some determined, late-season wild-flowers.
We cross feeder creeks several times to try to avoid the deadfall and boulders and I cheer for joy when we reach a more open section. Across the river are sheer cliffs and one ingenious tree so insistent on living that its great thick root (or is it its trunk?) has grown in several 45 degree turns and one 180 degree loop. It bulges out from the rock like a fat worm, leaving space enough for a person to stand between wood and rock. Beyond this turn it splits in two directions; one rising vertically in sheer relief and the other bending back on itself like a person squatting.
Next to this amazing tree is a geologist’s dream of a cliff, with several clearly visible layers of sediment tilted toward the sky in classic uplift. In other sections the basalt stands in orderly columns. In the center of the stream are giant boulders, pounded incessantly by the rough and wild water.
Then Frank calls out for us to be extra careful. We have come upon a thermal area.
There is a spot ahead that is flat and bare of vegetation, which, from a distance looks like a perfect place to pitch a tent. But on closer inspection we see telltale white sinter and realize we are standing on an old thermal shield. The shield juts out over the river, undercut by the water over the years. Further out in the stream rests a flat piece of sinter-rock, which probably broke off years ago. Frank thinks the rock looks like a giant Frisbee. I stay back from the edge. To the right of the shield we find two thermal outlets bounded by dark black algae, adding warm water to the cold river.
About 10 feet back from the bank we find a muddy depression sprouting orange grasses and pocked with elk and deer prints. Upon further inspection of the pooled liquid within the prints, we find champagne-sized bubbles seeping up. Aha! We name it Champagne Springs, and joke about someday opening a backcountry resort called “Giant Frisbee Spa On The Gardner“.
We also find several moldy bones, and one which we first think is a skull but later realize is a pelvis. We pass a marshy spot bursting with emerald-green grass and some standing water full of watercress. And we pass another marshy spot full of cattails. Between the marshy spots are areas with beautiful whispery-dry blonde grass.
All along the trail are burr-bushes which take full advantage of free transport via our clothing. Our one hike probably did more to spread the DNA of those burr-bushes than a summer full of passing elk. I was still picking off burrs while sitting at the airport on my way home!
We stop for lunch at a curve in the river which offers some well-placed boulders and logs as seats. DanM makes use of the fishing gear he brought and quickly catches a pretty 15 inch rainbow trout. I watch in fascination as he pulls a metal instrument from his pocket, expertly frees the fish and lets it swim away.
The sun beats down on us and I thoroughly enjoy the break, as do we all.
Then we follow our footsteps back along the river and about half-way back up the hillside. But we always want to explore new routes, so Frank heads to the left to skirt the hill rather than going back over the top. Given my partial fear of heights I find it far more difficult to negotiate the series of scree-hill drop-offs. Certain spots are pretty treacherous and I am not the only one having trouble. But the views are spectacular and we stop frequently to enjoy them. It comes as a relief when we find a bison trail across the slipperiest scree. I thank my hiking mates for sticking so close to me. Finally we re-enter the forest and from here on it is easy hiking back to the road. When we reach the cars Frank rewards us with his traditional supply of cold sodas. We rest here and yak some more and discuss our evening adventures. Dan decides to head to Gardiner to spend some time with Geri and Bruce while Bison, JJ, Frank and I set off to Antelope Creek to scope for Agate wolves.
By the time we get up the mountain, the sun has dipped behind the peaks and the temperatures along with it. So I slide into my down jacket for the first time on this trip and set up Layla for a short evening session. We find no wolves but we do see a raptor diving for a meal in the valley below. It has an orange-ish breast and a white stripe on its back where its tail-feathers begin and it has white patches on its wings. I am told this may be a Northern Harrier.
We see bison scattered throughout the meadows and way, way back in the forest Bison finds a cow moose! We also see various bull elk on the high timbered slopes and we hear them bugling on and off. Anne shows up and she and Frank have a humorous conversation. She also tells me that Jan and Bill have a radio for me!
The light begins to fade and the air gets chillier so we decide to call it a night. A beautiful sunset plays in the sky for most of the drive west. The forested hills hold the golden glow and the clouds above the hills turn a purplish-blue. Then a single star appears; Venus, no doubt.
We have planned a lively get-together at the Mine tonight and when I arrive I find other Loons already here, none other than our Bear-Friday posting friends from the Netherlands, Helene and Rene, along with Helene’s parents, Jose and Jos. They are all delightful and I find Rene especially to be quite a character. One of our conversation topics is about the dikes in Louisiana and how they failed so utterly during Hurricane Katrina. The Dutch know a thing or two about dike building!
Geri, Bruce and DanM arrive and then here come John, Carlene and Rachel! We have all been visiting on the porch but now we go inside to have a yummy late dinner. Dan M and I share a big slice of chocolate cake with a scoop of ice-cream on top, but not before he teases me with a plate full of burrs from our hike.
But at last it’s time for good-byes and we set off to our various abodes. Another fun-filled day in Yellowstone has come to an end and I am grateful to rest my head.
Today I saw: antelope, 1 grizzly bear, bison, chipmunks, 2 coyotes, mule deer, elk, 1 fox, 1 northern harrier, 1 hawk, 1 kestrel, 1 moose, 1 mountain blue-bird, Clark’s Nutcrackers, 1 Slough Creek wolf (Sharp Left), 13 Loons and the spirit of Allison